Sunday, February 23, 2014

John Hodgman on Only Children

I am an only child. And when you are an only child you have an unusual relationship with your parents. There are only the three of you, and you come to rely on one another for company as much as for anything else. You spend a lot of time traveling together, going to movies together, and watching public television together, with your dinner in your lap. Your mother and father are not so much your parents as they are your weird, older roommates. Or better, a pair of older cats who wander in and out of the rooms of your house. They silently judge you, but they can't stop you from whatever it is you're going to do.
—John Hodgman, from "Downton Abbey with Cats," The New Yorker, 1/13/14

 The New Yorker characterized this as a "Shouts and Murmurs" humor piece, but it was far wiser and deeper than those pieces tend to be. (It begins, "Look, I never want to tell stories about my children, because it always seems a little lazy. Children tend to be sort of dumb, and, in the end, the stories are always the same: children say hilarious things, and I am old and dying." That's funny, sure, but it also cuts close to the bone.)

And the paragraph I've quoted above made me realize how little writing I've read about the experience of being an only child -- despite the Internet-enabled proliferation of first-person essays about coming-of-age and parenting and all that stuff. And, even though only children make up an increasing share of the population (about 20% of American kids these days will be only children) there still seems to be a sense that it's "better" for children to have siblings, or that being an only child is not "ideal." Think of how newlywed couples get asked "Are you planning to have kids?" not "Are you planning to have a kid?" (Which is pretty presumptuous on the part of the asker – there's no guarantee that any couple will be able to have one healthy child, much less multiple children.) I'm trying to think of ways I can personally help dismantle the stigma around having only one child, without coming across as an agenda-driven douchebag.

But I know I am agenda-driven, because I'm an only child who never wished for siblings, and I feel like many of my better qualities (my creativity and ability to spend time by myself) are attributable to my being an only child. Some people may read the Hodgman quote above and discount it because it's part of a "humor" piece; others may read it and say "Look, it says that only children have an 'unusual' relationship with their parents; I don't want that for my child." But I feel that my life was enriched by being around adults so much at a young age, and if my parents were "a pair of older cats" -- well, I've always been a cat person.

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